Over the past 10 years, the academy has not demonstrated a clear performance length preference with their choices of Best Actress winners. While the actress with the highest or second highest screen time in her lineup has prevailed five times, the one with the lowest or second lowest has done so in four years and the one in the middle once. Last year’s victor, Renée Zellweger (“Judy”), outpaced her competitors by over two minutes and 5%, while the champ before her, Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), had the lowest total in her group by over 12 minutes and 20%.
It is essentially impossible to forecast the results of a given Best Actress Oscar race using screen time data, but it does appear that somewhat longer performances are more likely to prevail. The current crop of voters could continue the Zellweger trend or just as easily shift the focus back to smaller roles, making this anyone’s game to win.
The 2021 Best Actress nominees have an average screen time of one hour, 11 minutes, and 24 seconds, or 61.17% of their respective films. In terms of actual time, their average is the 19th highest in the category’s history. Their percentage average ranks as the 21st highest.
This is only the 28th time in 93 years that the lead actresses have had a higher average than the same year’s lead actors, with the current lineup of men coming up short by two minutes and 56 seconds (or 0.70%). The last 10 winners of this award have had an average screen time of one hour, nine minutes, and 41 seconds (or 62.25%).
This year, the academy may vote in favor of the longest lead female performance once again by awarding Andra Day for her work in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Her portrayal of the titular singer is just 13 seconds longer than Zellweger’s turn as Judy Garland at one hour, 27 minutes, and 42 seconds, or 67.38% of the film. Only seven actresses with more screen time have been recognized in this category over the last 20 years, with Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) ranking highest at one hour, 49 minutes, and 55 seconds.
Close behind Day is Carey Mulligan, whose screen time in “Promising Young Woman” totals one hour, 23 minutes, and nine seconds and amounts to 73.36% of the film’s running time. Her previously nominated role in “An Education” (2010) is nine minutes and 14 seconds shorter but 0.36% longer. The record for smallest percentage difference between two Oscar-nominated Best Actress performances (0.01%) is jointly held by Jane Fonda (“Julia” and “The Morning After”) and Joanne Woodward (“The Three Faces of Eve” and “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams”).
In the middle of this year’s group is Frances McDormand, who appears in one hour, 20 minutes, and 56 seconds (or 75.21%) of “Nomadland.” In terms of percentage, her performance is the longest in the lineup. Only 14% of Best Actress nominees and 15% of winners have ever passed the 75% mark. The last winner to do so was Julianne Moore, whose performance in “Still Alice” (2015) takes up 80.22% of the film. This is the first of McDormand’s six Oscar-nominated turns to amount to over one hour of screen time. She previously won in this category for appearing in 26 minutes and 29 seconds of “Fargo” (1997) and 53 minutes and 19 seconds of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2018).
In the fourth spot is Vanessa Kirby, whose screen time in “Pieces of a Woman” equals one hour, 18 minutes, and 32 seconds, or 61.53% of the film. This is only the fourth time in Oscar history that four lead actresses with over 75 minutes of screen time have competed against each other and the first time since 1981, when only Mary Tyler Moore (“Ordinary People”) clocked in below the mark. The first two occurrences involved the groups recognized in 1956 and 1966.
The lead female nominee with the least screen time this year is Viola Davis, who earned her second bid in this category for her 26 minutes and 41 seconds of work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Her role amounts to 28.36% of the film’s running time and is one of the shortest ever nominated here by either metric. It is the 11th shortest by actual screen time and the 24th shortest by percentage. Only Patricia Neal (“Hud”), Louise Fletcher (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”), and McDormand have scored Best Actress wins for smaller roles. Davis’s performance is also nearly half the size of her 53-minute and 32-second one in “Fences,” which earned her a Best Supporting Actress trophy in 2017.
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